Earning the call

More than 800 officials work in Division I. Only 10 are invited to preside over the Final Four. Mike Roberts, through his 20-year officiating career, has never received that coveted phone call. Can he survive the madness this year and advance to Dallas?

NCAA Champion magazine writer Brian Burnsed discusses what it was like behind the scenes with Roberts and other officials during this year’s NCAA tournament. 

Like most worthwhile endeavors, it starts with breakfast.

They trickle into the Dogwood conference room at the DoubleTree tucked behind the Target and Home Depot, the 12 of them, one by one, wearing sneakers and loafers and jeans and sweatpants and button-downs and zip-ups. They have names like Eric and Dwayne and Tom. They have worked as IT contractors and Delta ticket agents and sheriffs. They spend their Sundays fishing or watching the Cowboys or perusing the USA Today sports section over coffee and the rims of their glasses.

Some prefer Corn Flakes. Others, like Mike Roberts, will have eggs and bacon with his orange juice, please. He knows he has a long day ahead, having sat in rooms like this one six times before. And the veteran’s stomach understands those little boxes of cereal you find at hotels like this in towns like Cary, N.C., won’t suffice.

Roberts eats and listens. The air in the room is coarse and cocksure – this meal is earned, after all, not given. The smattering of customers in the lobby don’t slap backs with the same vigor as those 12; they could be excused for mistaking this group for retired fighter pilots.

Unlike the regular season, when they are assigned games months in advance, Roberts and other officials are given their tournament assignments over breakfast the morning of the games.

It’s March 21, 2014, the day four second-round NCAA tournament games will be played in nearby Raleigh, N.C. Amid the hugs and handshakes and the smell of cheap sausage, six men and women in suits take seats at the head of the table. They are NCAA committee members or staffers or liaisons; their job is to ensure the day operates smoothly, beginning with breakfast.

The banter withers and the sports sections fold. Joe Alleva, athletics director at LSU and a member of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, wearing the type of gray suit that looks out of place in a room like the Dogwood at the DoubleTree, addresses the men. Their job is to officiate the games played by young athletes who have devoted untold hours of perspiration and perseverance to reach this moment, where blown calls haunt careers. Alleva recites logistics, instructions and disclaimers from a piece of paper that will be read in seven other rooms like this one across the country.

Then he looks the men in their eyes.

“You guys were selected because you’ve done a great job all year, so just keep doing what you’ve been doing,” he says. “Good luck.”

It’s the tailored-gray-suit version of the speech given to Roberts when he earned his first Division I job in 1994. He impressed Richie Weiler, the officiating coordinator for the Mid-Continent Conference, who had only a few words of advice for the fledgling referee. They stayed with Roberts through the subsequent 914 games of his career.

“I'm going to hire you,” Weiler told a stunned 30-year-old Roberts. “Now don’t eff it up.”

As a child, Roberts soaked in Toledo Rockets games from the shadows of Centennial Hall’s top row, yearning to be one of the players down there where the lights shined brightest. He was the youngest of 13 brothers and sisters living in a cramped home in Toledo, Ohio. Clean the house and you can play basketball, he was told, so he learned to be meticulous. He lives alone today, but a search for blemishes in his six-bedroom suburban Atlanta home yields only a basket of neatly rolled hand towels in the guest bathroom.

Roberts’ first NCAA tournament game, in San Diego in 2006, was marred by a bomb threat that emptied the arena and delayed tipoff for several hours.

He eventually scrubbed enough counters to earn a scholarship at Kent State. The Golden Flashes were two points away from a conference championship and the NCAA tournament in 1984, his sophomore year. As a player, he never came close again.

But in 25 years as a police officer and detective in northern Ohio, he dealt with murderers, rapists and thieves, learning to use his words, not his gun, to diffuse volatile situations. By comparison, managing players’ corner-eyed glances and coaches, whose forehead veins foretell heart attacks, is painless. So he found his way to the tournament in a black-and-white striped shirt instead.

Getting there is no minor accomplishment: It took Roberts more than a decade to earn his first tournament game. Of the 838 referees who presided over Division I games this year, only 292 were nominated by their conferences for consideration to work the NCAA tournament. Of those, 100 were chosen to officiate games by NCAA National Basketball Officiating Coordinator John Adams and his team of four regional advisers, who evaluate referees through hundreds of contests each season. Twelve of those 100 are eating breakfast around the square table in the DoubleTree’s conference room. By the weekend of the regional finals, the field will be whittled to 40, including four standbys.

Though Roberts has never advanced past the Sweet 16, he did travel to Houston when close friend and fellow official Mike Stephens earned his way to the 2011 Final Four. The memory lingers for Roberts, watching from the stands, wondering what Stephens felt as he stood in the middle of a packed football stadium. Stephens later confided about the euphoria, the sense of accomplishment that he let creep in during the national anthem before the requisite stoicism returned.

“At some point we all hope to get there,” Roberts says.“I want to challenge myself: How good could I be with 100,000 people watching?”

Few learn the answer. A mere 10 referees, including a standby, get the coveted call from Adams after the regional finals. He’ll tell them they will work the Final Four or championship game because they’ve excelled through their careers, through the season and through two taxing tournament weekends.

“It’s the best part of my job,” Adams says. “Quite a few tears have been shed on both ends of the phone.”

Yes, referees can cry.

It’s 30 minutes past noon when Roberts, Lamar Simpson and Duke Edsall stroll into the arena through the loading dock as an unexpectedly close game between Duke and Mercer rumbles through the walls. The trio learned only over breakfast that they would be working the 2:45 p.m. Tennessee-Massachusetts matchup.

There’s a lot buried under the typical referee’s uniform. By the time Roberts layers himself head to toe in compression gear, he looks like he’s set to slide on shoulder pads, not a striped shirt.

Officials tend to work for a handful of conferences, so some faces are vaguely familiar. Roberts, who primarily works in the Big East, ACC and SEC, can’t recall the last time he shared the court with Edsall, a Big 12 and Conference USA regular. But Roberts is elated to be entering PNC Arena next to Simpson, a close friend. The two and Stephens – who is working the San Diego regional – text and call each other frequently throughout the season, reviewing tape, scouting teams and assessing each other’s positioning and decision-making without fear of bruising egos.

As Duke and Mercer reach halftime, Roberts retreats from a baseline seat to the referees’ locker room. It’s a relative closet, just big enough to accommodate four people, beyond a red door locked with an electronic keypad. Three Raleigh State Police officers, none shorter than 6-foot-3, none familiar with the area’s vegan eateries, stand sentry outside.

Roberts slides on layers of compression gear – a shirt, pants, socks and knee braces – and, eventually, the striped shirt by which so many define him. He’s irked that the stripes are all people see of him. Roberts was a detective who relished tackling complex fraud cases. He’s a son and a brother and a friend. He’s a man who pauses to think before he speaks, who gets frustrated when the cat he adopted from his elderly mother jumps on the furniture, who will check to make sure you’re not allergic before you step through his front door.

“Everyone only sees those striped shirts, and that’s what I used to say about wearing my blue police uniform,” he says. “Don’t stereotype me because I’m in this uniform. There’s a human side of me. There’s a human in that uniform, a passionate guy.”

They’re human, yes, but some prepare like machines. For Roberts, the pregame dance with the red digital clock on the wall, ticking down to tipoff, is a strict process. He rubs muscle balm on his legs, massages his thighs with a roller, stretches his hamstrings with a purple band around his toes, takes to his knee for a prayer and periodically dips into his Ziploc bag of M&Ms, washing it down with a Mountain Dew for a pregame sugar rush.

Simpson and Roberts advise Edsall, who hasn’t worked either team this season, that managing Tennessee’s frontcourt – all 520 pounds of Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes – will be their most important duty. Those big bodies are sure to instigate contact. But how much will be legal?

Roberts and Verne Harris, a real estate broker who has worked several Final Fours, watch the first half of the Duke-Mercer game before they prepare to work the day’s next contest.

Attention drifts to the muted television in the locker room as 14th-seeded Mercer poises to stun Duke. A foul call late in the game splits the room: Edsall and Verne Harris, who is working as the standby, argue the foul should’ve been called, even though Mercer’s Anthony White Jr. stood still, waiting for Duke to stop the clock with a foul. Roberts and Simpson contend that he should’ve made a move to earn the call. Each man re-enacts the play, voices lively; the irony of officials arguing a call, even lightheartedly, mere minutes before taking the court isn’t lost on the group.

“Communication is key,” Edsall says, his words quickening as those bold numbers tick toward zero. “If we communicate amongst ourselves, we’ll be fine.”

At 3:01 p.m., only six hours after the three men learned they would be working together, Edsall tosses the jump ball. They communicate not with shouts, but long stares and nods of approval. When Roberts makes a call, he looks to Edsall or Simpson, who dip their heads slowly, maintaining eye contact, offering silent reassurance.

Two of them, the lead and trail officials, remain on the sideline near the coaches and slide to the baseline when the action moves to their end of the court. The third, the center official, sprints along the opposite sideline. They’re never moored to one spot, though, rotating after fouls to fill the space of the official who strides to the scorer’s table to announce the infraction. They are points on a triangle, the sturdiest geometric shape, linked only by nods and silent stares and mutual understanding amid the thicket of limbs and the arena’s bellows.

In the second half, Maymon catches the ball near the elbow and barrels toward the basket, crushing a Massachusetts forward who rotated to absorb the contact. Roberts, standing in front of the play on the baseline, has only a few tenths of a second to process what he says is the hardest call in the game: the block/charge. Were the Massachusetts defender’s feet outside the restricted area? Were they set before Maymon started his upward motion? Did Maymon initiate the contact? Roberts must be fast and certain in his responses to these questions, or else his body language will betray him in front of Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, standing only 20 feet away. When Roberts thrusts his arm forward to signal the charge, Martin doesn’t protest.

After Tennessee seals the 86-67 win, the sweat-soaked trio jogs off the court alongside those prodigious policemen. Roberts is content – the crew drew only a few apoplectic glances from either coach. He’s confident Adams, Alleva and the other evaluators who studied him won’t find glaring flaws when deciding his fate.

Roberts drew two assignments before the tournament started. Surviving to Sunday was guaranteed. Working a third game isn’t. He’ll need to manage two more blemish-free halves if he is going to advance. Simpson will share the court with him once again. Edsall’s tournament is over; a lanky Arkansan in the insurance business, Don Daily, is now sitting in the locker room folding chair between the two friends.

Daily hasn’t worked with either man in years, but there’s an immediate rapport. On Friday, he poked his head into the locker room to congratulate Roberts and his crew on a job well done. Daily’s demeanor matches his drawl. It suits Simpson, who escapes into his headphones, head hanging low, and Roberts, who isn’t prone to instigating small talk.

Roberts and Don Daily take a much-needed breather during the unexpectedly fast-paced first half of Virginia-Memphis.

After the tournament game playing on the locker room television ends amid controversy, Simpson responds by humming three familiar notes from the SportsCenter theme.

“Never want to hear that sound,” he says, shaking his head, understanding that the men in this room will be on that same screen in a few minutes. Difficult decisions could be looming. They, too, could unwittingly make their way onto ESPN.

Soon after the 8:57 p.m. tip, the game reaches a pace the officials hadn’t anticipated during their pregame discussion of Virginia’s methodical play. The teams trade the ball eight times during a 2 ½-minute stretch. The final tally: four made shots, four missed – two of them blocked – zero stoppages in play and three exhausted officials. When a foul ends Roberts’ sprinting drills, the 50-year-old’s chest is heaving.

Veins running along Roberts’ biceps still peek out from those striped sleeves. He stays in shape not only by working dozens of games through the season – this is his 73rd – but by swimming on off days and working out through the summer. He’ll add yoga this offseason, he insists. He monitors his weight to the pound: 191 is ideal during the season, easing pressure on his surgically repaired knees, even though his body begs him to settle at 202. But sprees like the one he just endured would tax any middle-aged man.

Simpson, who doesn’t train as vigorously as his friend, admits at halftime, “I felt that. I wasn’t ready for a track meet.”

The trio is content with the first half but wary of what’s to come. The combination of Memphis’ 15-point halftime deficit and the emotions of a season ticking away could be combustible. Those worries are realized in the game’s waning moments: With Virginia up 21 and only 63 seconds remaining in another uneventful game, Cavaliers reserve Evan Nolte hammers a one-handed baseline dunk on Memphis forward David Pellom. It’s Nolte’s first in two years at Virginia, eliciting pandemonium in the pro-Virginia crowd and pulling teammates’ mouths wide as they spring to their feet, grabbing fistfuls of each other’s jerseys.

Despite the deficit, three of Memphis’ starters are on the court. The team’s frustrations are exacerbated by Nolte’s dunk. Players begin sneering at each other, which Roberts won’t tolerate. He shouts down Virginia guard Justin Anderson for baiting his opponents. Roberts’ intervention prevents anything worse. The game ends peacefully.

But when time mercifully expires, the squabbling sends Roberts off the court in a fury. Adrenaline pumping, he unleashes a rant in the referees’ locker room, frustrated that the blowout teetered on the edge of becoming something worse. And the blame would’ve fallen at the feet of the men in that small room.

Roberts and close friend Lamar Simpson soak in a few games before they work Virginia and Memphis later that night.

“The last thing we need is somebody taking a shot at someone,” Simpson says.

“I’ve seen this before,” Roberts growls, recalling his career’s nadir.

On Dec. 10, 2011, a brawl erupted in front of him, all around him, and has stayed with him. Tensions were steadily building between crosstown rivals Cincinnati and Xavier for years. Insults hit sports radio before the game and, despite Xavier’s 23-point edge, several starters remained on the court through the final minutes.

With only a few seconds remaining, taunts led to shoves, shoves led to a thrown ball, a thrown ball led to a punch, a punch led to a bloodied face, a bloodied face led to SportsCenter and those three familiar notes. In replay after replay, Roberts is there in the middle of it all, unable to scream the genie back into the bottle.

Despite the warnings issued to both teams at halftime, headlines emerged in the aftermath insinuating that Roberts and his crew didn’t do enough to quell the coming storm. Now he ensures that he does.

“I've watched that game several times,” he says. “Just to see what we could have done differently.”

When Roberts, Simpson and Daily leave the arena just before midnight, none is certain if he will advance to the next weekend. Those who move on will work either a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight game, not both. Daily has worked five consecutive Sweet 16 games, but never beyond. Simpson reached the Sweet 16 in two of the past three seasons, but no further. By Tuesday, they will each learn their fates.

“It’s like opening your presents on Christmas morning,” Simpson says.

Throughout the season, many officials watch game tape of themselves or teams they’re scheduled to work. During the tournament, they often stay glued to televisions in the locker rooms, discussing calls made in games that are taking place across the country.

Roberts’ longest march came in 2011, when he called a Sweet 16 game in New Orleans. He was poised to work a regional semifinal in Dallas last year until bad luck and bad timing almost comically conspired against him. A tingling arm in a second-round game became a limb he couldn’t move in the third. An MRI uncovered nerve damage in his neck but, ironically, the scan did more harm than good. He entered the tube with a small cut on his cheek from shaving, an afterthought. But the MRI is believed to have infected the cut, which led to nausea, a swollen face and a Dallas emergency room.

Soon, bulbous growths overtook his cheek and eye. Adams was incredulous when Roberts called to tell him that he was turning down a Sweet 16 game – and his chance to be considered for that year’s Final Four. Adams begged him to reconsider.

But Roberts didn’t want any controversial calls blamed on the striped shirt with the swollen eye. No matter what was at stake, it wasn’t worth the risk.

Send me a picture, Adams retorted.

“It looked like he’d gone two rounds with Muhammad Ali,” he recalls.

Roberts doesn’t regret the decision. But he also understands that his opportunities to advance are running out. Offseason surgery corrected the nerve issue in his neck, but arm function only returned after months of rehab. Both knees ache from prior surgeries. His hip barks. An IT band injury kept him off the court for nearly two weeks in January. Retirement is only five or so years away, he says. The window is closing.

“You have to able to keep up with 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids,” Roberts says. “It’s tougher. I’m not 30 anymore.”

Roberts is going back to the Garden.

The good news arrives Tuesday morning. His first Elite Eight game will be in the arena he reveres more than any of the hundreds where he has worked. So far, the pinnacle of his career has been calling the Big East Tournament, he says, with that 46-year-old structure’s heart beating all around him.

Roberts, John Higgins and Tim Clougherty stroll through Times Square a few hours before they’re driven to Madison Square Garden to work an Elite Eight game.

Daily is moving on to his first Elite Eight game as well; he’ll be in Indianapolis. Simpson, meanwhile, didn’t like what he found under the tree. His tournament is over. Roberts learns an experienced crew will join him in New York: John Higgins and Tom Eades, who have worked four Final Fours each.

The Port Authority Terminal’s unmistakable stench lurks just outside their pregame breakfast in another nondescript hotel meeting room, buried in the basement of the Staybridge Suites on 40th Street. As they savor another helping of bacon and eggs, Division I Men’s Basketball Committee member and Northeastern Athletics Director Peter Roby discusses a difficult out-of-bounds call from the previous night’s Arizona-Wisconsin game. He reminds the officials to turn to the monitors if doubt creeps in, no matter how little.

“But don’t worry,” Roby quips. “There won’t be that many people watching today.”

Everything is bigger this time – the city, the stakes, the arena, even the TV on the wall in the officials’ locker room. An hour before tipoff, the men carry themselves as if they’ll soon watch the game on that TV, not officiate it. Higgins snacks on a pear, lounging in a leather chair, declaring to anyone who will listen that it’s among the best he has ever eaten. Candy, however, is Eades’ vice. His thumbs attack his phone’s screen as he plays Candy Crush in the corner of the room – annoyed that he can’t get past level seven.

But the frivolity fades as the game draws near. The men sit in a small triangle on the floor, stretching and icing and heating and planning, their voices low. Bags of ice rest on both of Eades’ knees. Four knee surgeries and a massive metal brace worn during games mark the passage of the gray-haired official’s career, along with three back procedures and still more operations on a hernia and his foot. Roberts talks less and listens more than he had in Raleigh, content to assume the role of apprentice.

Both coaches – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and UConn’s Kevin Ollie – are more animated than any Roberts dealt with through the first two rounds. In the first half, each pulls him aside during timeouts, waving hands and pivoting feet, lobbying for more fouls to be called in their favor. Roberts didn’t realize when he broke into officiating that he would be half rulebook and half behavioral therapist, learning to corral men with massive paychecks and, often, massive egos.

“They pressure you,” Roberts says. “They want to get in your head so you're going to give them plays or give them calls. You’ve got to manage them from the start to the end.”

The men in stripes are pleased at halftime. Earlier that day, they found their toilet clogged with paper towels, so when they return to the locker room Higgins tries, and fails, to unclog it with a plastic coat hanger. “I’ve seen it all,” he says as the group laughs. But they know what’s coming. They remember Roby’s words. They remember what their peers faced one night earlier.

“It’s what happens in the second half that everybody is going to remember,” Higgins says later.

The sold-out building roars through the second half as UConn surges into the lead. With 1:13 remaining, Michigan State center Adreian Payne leaps over his counterpart, Phillip Nolan, and tips a loose ball out of bounds. Roberts, standing on the baseline, is feet away. He awards the ball to UConn, leading by four, a call that will likely seal the game for the Huskies.

From his monitor on the sideline, standby referee Tim Clougherty knows something isn’t right. Higgins is closest to him. Clougherty pleads for a review.

“Mike, you sure?” Higgins shouts across the court.

Roberts and John Higgins review a crucial late out of bounds call.

“I’m sure,” Roberts says. But there is doubt in his voice. Higgins waves him over. The two men stand over the monitor for two interminable minutes, bent low, faces contorting amid a relative hush. Finally, a new angle reveals that Payne tipped the ball, but that it grazed Nolan’s fingers before falling to the floor.

Call reversed. Michigan State ball. Final Four hopes, for two teams and three referees, remain alive.

But only moments later, after the Spartans subsequently cut the Huskies’ lead to 53-51, UConn guard Shabazz Napier launches a three from the top of the key. Michigan State’s Keith Appling slaps Napier’s forearm as the ball spins off his fingertips. The shot doesn’t come close to the rim, and Eades whistles the Spartans’ senior for his fifth foul. With a two-point lead and three shots coming for Napier, an 86 percent free-throw shooter, the game – and Appling’s college career – is about to end.

Michigan State’s bench erupts: Izzo and assistant coaches curse Eades. Roberts, standing closest to them, intervenes, doing what he learned in his years walking into interrogation rooms and violent domestic situations. He smothers anger with calm. Rather than engage Izzo – less than a minute away from his season’s jarring end – Roberts simply asks for Appling’s substitute, reminding the coach that he has only 20 seconds to make one. Roberts then mentions that a mutual friend said hello. Izzo, disarmed, thanks him and walks away.

“Tough game,” Roberts says as he greets the other referees in the locker room. Like teammates after a victory, praise is exchanged, reassurances are made, doubts are squashed. Each is relieved that they reviewed the late out-of-bounds call. Roby was there in the front row, after all, evaluating their performance along with more than 10 million others nationwide.

“We’d have been roasted if we hadn’t looked,” Higgins says.

“Roasted,” Roberts echoes.

Their voices carry more urgency than hours before. The energy of working in front of 19,499 fans, knowing that any imperfect call could rob a team of its shot at the game’s biggest stage, had yet to fade. Roberts cedes that the atmosphere was more charged, the crowd louder, than those Big East Tournament games he long revered.

They anxiously watch the postgame show in the locker room, waiting to get blasted by Charles Barkley or Clark Kellogg or Kenny Smith. But their names are never mentioned. If no one knows their names, they’re happy.

After showering and changing, they roll their suitcases into a cramped hallway lined with pictures of the luminaries who have performed and played and coached in the Garden. As they wait for the car that will ferry them to LaGuardia, Higgins – the official who worked the tournament final last year, who wasn’t afraid to call Roberts over when he sensed something wasn’t right, and to whom Roberts gladly deferred – turns to his colleague.

“Mike Roberts, you’re a lock,” he says.

“I hope so,” Roberts smiles.

“Just to experience a Final Four, it’s …” the man who has been there tells the man who hasn’t, shaking his head as the words stop coming.

Roberts reclines at home, wearing a brown Polo and jeans, studying a day-old recording of himself wearing that familiar striped shirt in Madison Square Garden.

Then, at 4:15 p.m., the phone rings.

Mike Roberts, watching game tape in his home outside of Atlanta, learns his Final Four fate when he gets a call from NCAA National Officiating Coordinator John Adams.

When Adams asks Roberts to work as the standby at the Final Four, to be a part of all three games, joining his peers in the locker room, following them onto a stage surrounded by 100,000 people, then taking a seat at the scorer’s table a few bittersweet inches from the court and the euphoria, Roberts doesn’t cry.

He had wept before in a moment like this. He left the police station in Kent for the final time in December 2011, alone in his car, wondering how, after 25 years, he had earned no sendoff, lamenting how quickly he’d been forgotten. But that was before his fellow officers poured out of alleyways and side streets, blue lights flashing, sirens screaming, tears tumbling down his face as they paraded him home.

And just like that day in Kent, the men who share his uniform begin to come out of hiding. The sirens and blue lights are replaced by his phone’s beeps and blinking screen. In place of tears is a smile. It isn’t only Adams’ call that moves him. It is the next and the next and the next. For the first time, Roberts is the one answering, not dialing.

Calls and texts from 57 others come in, from Stephens and Simpson, colleagues and friends, fellow officials and conference coordinators, people he talks to every day and others he hasn’t heard from in months. Being standby is the next step, they say. It’s part of the process, he responds. I’m excited to be so close.

It took him 20 years to earn that call. Now, as the evening wears on, Mike Roberts’ phone won’t stop ringing.